Sunday, 1 February 2015

Penguin no. 1672: Within and Without
by John Harvey

Cover drawing by John Sewell.
Perhaps it was my duty to marry her? But how can anybody say they're always going to love somebody for ever? They can't, and I'm sure they don't, and then you're stuck. But I did feel we could live together for a long time - say a year or so - and see how it went, and then perhaps we might get married.

The summary on the back cover of this Penguin describes Within and Without as the story of a love affair, but I thought it was more the portrait of a selfish and self-concerned man, and of the damage he wreaks in another person's life. I took it down from the shelf because it was short, thinking it would be a quick read (because I was off on holiday to Singapore), but I found the protagonist so irritating that it took me the whole week to make it to the end.

Even before he meets Sue Morley, when he knows nothing about her but how she looks, Mark Fearon decides that he is in love with her. Once having met her, he professes this love at every opportunity, with a frequency that makes her uncomfortable. But it seemed a strange type of love - one principally concerned with holding on to her and having her, and one which never for a moment concerned itself with how she felt or what she might want. Despite his claims, the only person Mark Fearon really seemed to care about was himself.

And what he principally cares about is not feeling unhappy, and - at least in the beginning - being with Sue provides an answer: by giving him something to think about other than himself, this relationship offers him some respite from feelings of boredom and purposelessness. He begins the story as a disaffected and dispirited art student who lacks the motivation to actually work at producing any art, but it seems clear that much of his problem is due to no one expecting him to be any better than he is.

Mark Fearon is the only son of wealthy parents who are willing to support him and fund his art studies, even though he is well into his twenties, and to provide him with a studio in Notting Hill Gate and an old American car to drive around in, and to pander to any other whim which might temporarily consume him; all this is part of his life whether he works for it or not. He is in a situation where he has the freedom to do anything he likes, and so he does nothing. But doing nothing doesn't bring him contentment.

And so he fixes on Sue Morley as the solution to his boredom, and rather fortuitously for him Sue Morley is in a desperate situation. She is looking for someone who will help her escape the demands of an overbearing mother, but for a girl of her class in 1960s Britain the only socially-acceptable means of escape is marriage and this is something Mark has no intention of offering. He wants her but he doesn't want to commit to her, and without giving her any time to consider his offer, he encourages her to leave her home and come away with him. When she agrees he takes her to a small isolated village in Wales where he can have her all to himself.

Mark's plan is to get her away from her friends and family, away from any competitors for her affections, and away from the likely opposition of his family. He isolates Sue because it suits him to, and he doesn't for a minute consider what this will mean for her. In the process of fulfilling his dream she is required to give up her home, her friends and her family, along with a hard-won scholarship. And having burnt her bridges, there is no way back.

Within and Without reminded me of Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving, in that the story describes the trajectory of a relationship from the point of view of a young man: first he wants her, then he wins her, then he becomes bored with her. But this is a book set in London and Wales rather than in a provincial Northern town, and the protagonist here is not of the working-class. It is Mark Fearon's sense of entitlement which is the problem, and this makes him a much less likeable protagonist than Vic Brown.

The quotes on the back cover suggest that the novel was well-received in its day, but I'm not sure what the contemporary reviewers saw in it, unless it was the novelty of a story featuring such a lot of sex. A review in the Spectator noted that it had 'the real tone of the generation it's about', but what a terrible indictment this seems. If this story really offers a sensitive portrayal of a generation, it suggests them as a feckless and selfish lot.

First published by Faber and Faber 1960. Published in Penguin Books 1962.


  1. Sounds strange, depressing but oddly attractive. I'd probably read it if someone thrust a copy into my hands but will not be seeking it out.

  2. What a perfect summary of the book. I found it by chance and havecjust finished it and you have very succintly said everything I felt.
    I shall read some more of your reviews to help me choose my next novel.
    Thank you

  3. A perfect summary of the book.
    I picked it up at a charity shop and just finished reading it.
    Matches my feeling for the story.
    I will now look through your reviews for my next read.
    Thank you.

  4. Wow I'm impressed by your collection, first time I've come across it. I actually found it through searching for the author to find out more about him. I can't take issue with your summary of either the story or his character, he is indeed unlikeably self obsessed and solipstic. However I really enjoyed the writing and thought it was quite unusual in style. It took me a while to get used to what one reviewer called the sparseness of the text, but after a while it seemed to mirror his rather disconnected psychological state. It is all first person of course as well, so we see the world through his eyes only. However, his intense awareness of both place and his fluctuating internal state (the former always mirroring the latter of course) I thought were highly effectively and evocatively described. There are many instances of this, but his dislike of swimming in water where he can't see the bottom, or the comfort he takes from being in his car, both spring to mind, and it isn't overplayed in a clunkily symbolic way. I suspect that one of the reasons some readers don't like it (as on another site) is that we are made to inhabit the internal world of someone we don't really like. But that sense of being intensely aware of surroundings, and feeling moored or unmoored by them, reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf's descriptions of the minutiae of experience transposed into a different context. He's no Virginia Woolf of course, but unusual and effective enough a writer to have held my attention in the somewhat trying company of Mark Fearon.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...